Kicking the debt habit requires a culture shift

loan-sharks

IF you frequent a particular sort of pub, you may have seen the poster: a man’s smiling mouth filled with sharp metal teeth, above the slogan “Loan sharks rip lives apart”.

I’ve never spotted one in a style bar – the kind that serve chips in flower pots and cocktails in tin cans – but I doubt that’s because the hipsters who drink there are debt-free.

The difference between these two sets of punters isn’t that one is profligate and the other thrifty. It’s that one has access to cheap, socially acceptable credit and the other does not. One can borrow from the bank, the credit card company or family members, while the other must turn to payday loan companies, pawn shops or, in dire straits, illegal lenders.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is reviewing the price cap it introduced on payday loan deals, to see if those who previously borrowed from the likes of Uncle Buck, Cash Genie or Toothfairy Finance are now resorting to more desperate measures. The review won’t be restricted to these “high-cost short-term credit” firms, however, with overdraft fees, catalogue deals and pawnbroking also coming under scrutiny.

Numerous payday loan companies have gone out of business since 2014 … but if the unintended consequences have been even worse, then what?

Numerous payday loan companies have gone out of business since the cap and other restrictions were introduced in 2014, and it’s easy to see this as a straightforward victory. But if the FCA finds the unintended consequences have been even worse, then what? And will revisions to the rules really solve anything, or amount to little more than tinkering around the edges?

While the media focused on high-profile lenders such as Wonga and Satsuma – with their jaunty radio jingles and cuddly TV adverts – plenty of credit cards were still being issued to people who couldn’t afford them. The FCA’s recent research into the market found that “a quarter of credit cards in the higher risk segment opened in 2013 were in severe or serious arrears in 2014”, and that almost nine per cent of credit cards active in January 2015, some 5.1 million accounts, were likely to take at least 10 years to pay off. While card-holders who default are unprofitable, those who make minimum payments while racking up more and more debt are great for business. It’s no wonder the card companies do little to help when they see their customers descending into problem debt.

While card-holders who default are unprofitable, those who make minimum payments while racking up more and more debt are great for business

The regulator has proposed a number of remedies to this problem, with a focus on ensuring competition and the ability of customers to find the best deals using price comparison websites. What it fails to acknowledge is that not every household has access to the internet, or the know-how to compare APRs. Customers living in particular postcodes are targeted by mail and offered sky-high interest rates (I used to rip up at least half a dozen a year and return them in the pre-paid envelopes provided – I think they may have got the message by now). It’s all very well to talk about shopping around, but many who receive these offers simply won’t qualify for better ones due to their incomes, their credit histories or a combination of the two.

What’s missing from the FCA’s patchwork of gentle nudging and strict enforcement is consumer education, which is surely the best protection against being sucked in by a 0% balance transfer rate or introductory offer. In theory, Scottish schoolchildren should be learning about personal finance as part of Curriculum for Excellence, but in reality it is left to third-sector organisations such as the Stewart Ivory Financial Education Trust – and, more problematically, banks – to try to plug knowledge gaps and prepare young people for the responsibilities of adult life. Financial education is about much more than just numeracy, and learning about saving, borrowing, budgeting and gambling should not be restricted to those who excel at maths.

The “because I’m worth it” culture has merged with easy-access credit and the age-old determination to keep up with the Joneses

But beyond all this is a broader issue, which is that personal debt has become normalised at the very same time that the UK’s level of public debt has been portrayed as an unprecedented, spiralling crisis that can only be solved by savage cuts to public services. The very idea of living within one’s means has become quaint, and not just for those scraping by who simply cannot save are forced to borrow when the boiler breaks or the kids need new shoes. The “because I’m worth it” culture has merged with easy-access credit and the age-old determination to keep up with the Joneses, producing a generation who are locked into luxury lifestyle spending that feels essential. Whether it’s the biggest mortgage the bank will lend, a £30-a-month smartphone contract or a holiday on plastic, many take the view that life’s too short to scrimp and save. It doesn’t help that interest rates on savings accounts are barely in the single figures, but with a recent study finding Scots have just three weeks’ wages in reserve, it’s surely time to take stock, and at least stay in the black where possible.

The solution to problem debt isn’t a credit cap here and a price comparison site there – it’s reducing inequality so that no-one is forced to visit a loan shark just to keep their head above water, and encouraging a cultural shift away from buy-today-pay-tomorrow when it’s likely tomorrow will be a decade down the line, and the shiny new iPhone that seemed so essential at the time will belong in a museum.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s